Gender Relations in Islam

Since 2014-01-17

Sheikh Alomgir Ali


Hysteria took over the media in recent weeks regarding the issue of gender segregation in public institutions in the UK. Such hysteria is not uncommon amongst the press these days as there seems to be a rise in sensationalist media reporting over issues which have been accepted by British society for decades, such as the issue of the niqāb, beard and now gender segregation. It needs to be made clear from the beginning though that this article is not simply a reactionary piece to the islamaphobic antics of the media, since the whole discourse has a number of facets to it that cannot be ignored and so must be addressed.

We need to be able to see this issue in its true holistic sense and not just view it as a matter of segregation within Islam. It is evident that the matter at hand is beyond the issue of rules pertaining to gender relations due to the following reasons:

1. Allocated seating based upon one’s gender has been in operation in Islamic society (ISOC) events for years without any considerable official objection from any institution.  It is not a new revelation that Islamic Societies have been using this policy related to seating arrangements.

2. Islamic Societies in universities observe this practice as it is the general wish of the attendees. Even if the ISOCs were not to announce this practice, the attendees would naturally sit in a manner where men would sit in a separate area of the hall from the women. It is therefore not a matter of imposition but rather a facilitation of what the attendees actually want.

3. We live in a liberal society where the faith and practices of people are meant to be tolerated. Students do not force or impose segregation upon anyone. The events held by the Islamic Societies are not compulsory to attend and are usually attended by people who support the idea of separate seating. Trying to stop events where people want to sit away from the opposite gender is completely illiberal and in fact counters the very values this society is built upon.

Based upon the above, one has to naturally ask therefore: why has there been so much coverage of this matter in the media? There can be no doubt that certain right-wing factions and other groups are working hard to escalate Islamaphobic sentiments in an attempt to critique ‘Islamism’ and normative Islām. One manner in which this is being achieved is by highlighting ‘medieval’ or ‘literalist’ based practices in order to shift people away from orthodoxy.

Before discussing the issue of rules of gender relations in Islam, it is important to understand a number of key points.

Firstly, the discourse related to gender relations in Islam has been tainted by the use of sensationalism and the use of loaded phrases which impart negative connotations in the minds of people before understanding the reality of the matter. For example, the term ‘medieval practices’ has been mentioned by some to try and fallaciously malign the benign practice of separate seating arrangements. The fallacy here is the assumption that a practice must be wrong because it happened to occur within a particular thousand-year period we call medieval.  Are all medieval practices wrong? Do not many of the traditions and habits of the people in the West date back centuries as well? Are we to call such practices out-dated as well? I would suggest then that we stop eating with knives and forks, and that people should stop celebrating Halloween and other similar traditions!

Even the term ‘segregation’ is problematic since it is often conflated with racism and apartheid as some people have done already. However, to liken separate seating arrangements based upon one’s gender to racial apartheid is fallacious due to a number of reasons, the most blindingly obvious being the fact that the latter is immoral because of the underlying racism that causes it. With racism some races are viewed as being superior or inferior to other races. However, separate seating arrangements for men and women are not done on the premise of the superiority of a particular gender. In fact, both genders are viewed mutually in the same light with regards to this issue; men are required to lower their gazes and not intermingle unnecessarily with women and vice-versa.

Another point that needs to be raised before discussing the issue of the Islamic perspective of gender relations is that critics of ‘Islamism’ and Muslims that adhere to normative Islām often allege that ‘Islamists’ are literalists and interpret law by the letter and not by the spirit of the text. Strangely though, when the topic of ḥijāb or laws related to gender relations is brought up, the critics demand to see an explicit verse or maybe even a prophetic saying (if they even believe in its authority) that supports the notion of ḥijāb or for example separate seating arrangements. What happened to the spirit of the law for such cases?

Gender segregation in Islām

It is important to note that often the terms ‘equality’ and ‘justice/fairness’ are often equated. We live in a world where people acknowledge differences between different age groups, abilities and even gender. Yes, gender! As for different age groups, the young and elderly are given many privileges over others. The more gifted or talented are given greater opportunities in education and work. With regards to gender, men are separated from women in many public schools, hospital wards, public toilets and in sports.  Despite all of the above, there are no claims of prejudice or discrimination. Physiologically, physically and in other areas, men and women are also very different. Should these differences not be looked into when determining how men and women should interact with one another?

Moreover, can it be denied that men interact with women differently to the way they interact with men? Whether it is in workplaces, universities, colleges or social gatherings, we interact with each other differently based upon our gender, of that there can be no denial. Ignoring such differences between us leads to the problems we face today. According to a number of reports, sexual harassment at work has become an endemic in the UK. [1]

As Muslims we believe that Allāh created men and women similar to one another in many aspects yet different to one another in numerous aspects as well.  The extent of these differences cannot be resolved by humans unanimously and so Allāh gave us His law to determine for us how we should deal with these differences. Allāh said:

“Should He not know what He created? And He is the Subtle, the Aware.” [2]

Gender relations in the Qur’ān:

The Qur’ān is a book of guidance that sheds light upon all affairs in life. This guidance can often be found to be quite explicit, whereas at other times it can be something which is deduced by collecting various verses and sayings together in order to derive principles and rulings. A common mistake amongst many laymen is that they expect that there be an explicit text for every ruling, otherwise they would not be willing to accept a given ruling. This approach is very dangerous and can render many agreed-upon rulings in our religion completely void. Such an approach has never been used by scholars of the past.

Allāh created men and women with different roles and responsibilities. Whilst Islām seeks justice to be established between both genders, it also appreciates the inherent differences between both genders which results in both genders having appropriate rulings.

Allāh says: “So We said, “O Ādam, indeed this is an enemy to you and to your wife. Then let him not remove both of you from Paradise so you would suffer”.” [3]

Notice how in this verse Allāh warns Ādam (‘alayhis salām) that the Devil should not remove both Ādam and his wife from Jannah but then says ‘so you would suffer’ in the masculine singular form, thus indicating it would be only Ādam who would really suffer since he would now have to provide for his wife after having been provided for freely in paradise.[4]

In other places in the Qur’ān there is also mention of the differences between men and women. In chapter three of the Qur’ān (āla ‘Imrān: 35) Allāh mentioned the story of the wife of ‘Imrān, the mother of Maryam, who was old and barren and had an extreme desire to have children. She made a vow to Allāh that if Allāh blessed her with a boy she would dedicate him to the temple as a servant and worshiper:

“Imrān’s wife said, ‘Lord, I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to You; so accept this from me. You are the One who hears and knows all,’ but when she gave birth, she said, ‘My Lord! I have given birth to a girl’– God knew best what she had given birth to: the male is not like the female ‘I name her Mary and I commend her and her offspring to Your protection from the rejected Satan’.” [5]

The mother of Maryam therefore sought to be excused from her vow since she gave birth to a girl who could not really mix with the people in the temple due to the rules of gender relations. The great ḥanafi jurist al Jaṣṣāṣ (d.307.h) said: “It was disliked for a woman to be in that position because she would have intermingled with men in the mosque, which is disliked whether she was in spiritual seclusion or not.”[6]

Likewise when speaking about the story of Mūsā (‘alayhis salām) when he was in Madyan, He mentioned the incident where Mūsa encountered the two young women:

“As he made his way towards Madyan, he was saying, ‘May my Lord guide me to the right way.’ When he arrived at Madyan’s waters, he found a group of men watering [their flocks], and beside them two women keeping their flocks back, so he said, ‘What is the matter with you two?’ They said, ‘We cannot water [our flocks] until the shepherds take their sheep away; our father is a very old man.’ He watered their flocks for them, withdrew into the shade, and prayed, ‘My Lord, I am in dire need of whatever good thing You may send me’,” [7]

The two women withheld from watering their flocks because they did not want to intermingle with the men and so wanted to wait until the men finished watering their flocks. Mūsā (‘alayhis salām) out of his kindness and wanting to help others, offered his assistance to them. When their father heard of his integrity and good character, he wanted to hire him as a worker. However, that would mean that he would work alongside his daughters who were not maḥram to him which may have caused problems, and so he offered to marry off one of his daughters to him in order to prevent any form of relationship to be formed outside of marriage. Likewise there are many other instances in the Qur’ān that speak of this phenomenon of there being guidelines as to how men interacted with women even prior to the Prophethood of Muḥammad (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam). 

Injunctions from the Qur’ān

Allāh says:

“[Prophet], tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do. And tell believing women that they should lower their glances, guard their private parts, and not display their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal…” [8]

In this verse Allāh clearly commands both believing men and women to lower their gaze from one another as that is purer for them. Therefore, separating between both genders is conducive for achieving this noble goal of keeping the heart pure. Moreover, the implied meaning of the verse is that not lowering the gaze actually corrupts and tarnishes the heart. Being in mixed environments makes it very easy to gaze upon the opposite gender in an unlawful manner.

Allāh says:

“And abide in your houses and do not display yourselves as [was] the display of the former times of ignorance.” [9]

Imām al Qurṭubi said regarding this verse: “In this verse we find the command to abide in one’s home. Even though this verse is addressing the mothers of the believers, it is also inclusive of all other women by extension as well.” [10]

Allāh also says:

“When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a screen: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs…”  [11]

This verse is explicit in commanding the believers to keep apart from the wives of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) when asking for something. The reason for this is also mentioned as well: “this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs…” The wives and the companions of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) had the purest of hearts yet were still required to speak to one another with some form of separation/partition between them. What would then be requested of people whose hearts were not as pure as the hearts of the companions? Surely the command in the verse would be more pertinent to them! [12]

Imām ash-Shinqīṭī (Raḥimullāh) said about this verse: “It is understood from the implied meaning of the verse (mafhūm al mukhālafah), a principle well established in the principles of jurisprudence, that intermingling and not observing the hijāb is more tarnishing and impure for the heart.” [13]

There are many other verses that imply rulings related to gender separation, however due to brevity of this article the above shall suffice for now.

Evidence from the Sunnah

Abū Usayd heard the Messenger of Allah (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) say when he was coming out of the mosque, and men and women were mingled in the road: “Draw back, for you must not walk in the middle of the road; keep to the sides of the road.” Then women were keeping so close to the wall that their garments were rubbing against it. [14]

It is quite evident from the above narration that the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) instructed the women to walk separately from men. If this is the case where intermingling can occur quite naturally and innocently, then the command will become more pertinent in situations where intermingling could last longer and lead to fitnah.

Abū Hurayrah (RaḍiAllāhu ‘anhu) reported that the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) said: “The best rows for men are the first rows and the worst rows for them are the last rows, and the best rows for women are last rows and the worst rows are the first rows.” [15]

Imām an-Nawawi (Raḥimullāh) said: “The last rows are preferred for women who are praying in a congregation where men are present in order to distance them from intermingling with men and looking at them.” [16]

If both men and women are encouraged to pray separately from one another during worship, where they are more likely to be more conscious of Allāh and more likely to control their gazes, then the requirement to keep away from intermingling in other circumstances becomes even more pertinent.

In another ḥadīth the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) said: “Beware of sitting by the road side.” The people then said, ‘O Allah‘s Messenger (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam), we cannot do without those meeting places in which we converse.’ So he said, “Well, if you insist (on that) give the road its due rights.” They asked, ‘What are the road’s due rights?’ He replied, “Lowering your gaze, abstaining from anything offensive, returning salutations, enjoining the right (Ma’rūf) and forbidding from evil deeds (Munkar).” [17]

Imām an-Nawawi (Raḥimullāh) mentioned regarding the above ḥadīth: “The Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) pointed to the reasoning behind the prohibition: exposing oneself to fitnah, passing by women in a manner that incurs sin. A person could possibly gaze upon them, envision something about them or think ill of them.” [18]

The Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) also warned of entering upon someone who is not maḥram to the person entering: “Beware of entering upon women.” So a man from the Anṣār said: ‘”O Messenger of Allah! What do you think about the ḥamu (brother-in-law)? So he said: “The ḥamu is death.” [19]

It can be seen that there was a form of separation between men and women during times of worship, in pathways and in private gatherings. There are also aḥādīth that allude to the fact that this also applied to environments of learning as well.

Abū Sa’īd al Khudrī (RaḍiAllāhu ‘anhu) reported that a group of women said to the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam): “O Messenger of Allāh! The men have taken all of your time therefore dedicate a day just for us”. He (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) promised them a day to meet them, teach them and command them with the affairs of the religion…” [20]

He therefore taught them in separate gatherings. This is also apparent from the fact that he used to exhort them women separately after the ‘Īd prayers. Despite that, it is not deemed wrong for females to learn from males and in fact vice versa. Ibn Ḥajar (Raḥimullāh) said regarding the ḥadīth of Abū Sa’īd al Khudrī (RaḍiAllāhu ‘anhu): “From this ḥadīth we learn the permissibility for women to ask men regarding matters pertaining to the religion and the permissibility of them to talk to men regarding that, in those matters where there is a pressing need. Knowledge was even taken from the wives of the Prophet (Ṣallāhu ‘alayhi wa salam) and other women from the salaf.” [21]

Interestingly, in the West there are a number of single-sex schools that seem to achieve better than mixed schools. Strangely though, no hysteria or outburst has been made about such institutions!

In conclusion, it must be stressed that we understand the context and the contemporary discourse of this matter and that we understand the Islamic viewpoint of it free from our whims and pre-conceived ideas surrounding the issue.

May Allāh guide and protect us all.

And Allāh knows best.

Source: Islam21c

[1] See

[2] al- Qur’ān  (67:14)

[3] al- Qur’ān (20:117)

[4] See: al Ikhtilāṭ p.17 by Sheikh Abdul Azīz al-Ṭarīfī.

[5] al- Qur’ān (3:36-37)

[6] Aḥkām al Qur’ān by al Jaṣṣāṣ (1/304)

[7] al- Qur’ān (28:23-25)

[8] al- Qur’ān (24:30-31)

[9] al- Qur’ān (33:33)

[10] Tafsīr al Qurṭubi (14/179)

[11] al- Qur’ān (33:53)

[12] See Aḍwā’ al Bayān, 6/242 by al Shinqīṭī (rh)

[13] Ḥukm al Ikhtilāṭ, p.71

[14] Sunan Abī Dāwūd 5272, graded ḥasan by Sheikh al Albāni.

[15] Muslim, 440.

[16] Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (4/159-60)

[17] Agreed upon.

[18] Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (14/142)

[19] Agreed upon. The scholars explained the phrase: ‘the ḥamu is death’ in a number of different ways: being in seclusion with the ḥamu leads to the death/destruction of one’s religion. It leads to the ruin a woman’s life as it might lead to her husband divorcing her due to the jealousy he has over her. The Arabs also described someone extremely disliked as being ‘death’. Others said it means that one should fear the situation as one would fear death. See Fatḥ al Bāri (9/332)

[20] Agreed upon.

[21] Fatḥ al Bāri 1/178

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